The two American gunmen who Sunday, May 3, tried – and failed – to shoot up an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, northeast of Dallas, sounded a wakeup call for US intelligence and counter-terrorism agencies – even before the Islamic State warned that this first attack on US soil would not be its last. The two homegrown terrorists, Elton Simpson, a Christian who converted to Islam, and Nadir Soofi, son of a Pakistani father and American mother, carried submachine guns and explosives and wore body armor – attesting to the existence of an organization behind the attack.
That organization is believed to be made up of small sleeper cells of two to three terrorists each, ready to spring into action on orders from distant controllers.
Both were young men in their mid-twenties. The half-Pakistani Muslim Soofi scraped a living from cleaning carpets, while Simpson was out of work. They failed to perpetrate mass murder because they made every possible mistake. And so after inflicting a scratch on one of the unarmed guards, both were shot dead by local police officers securing the “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Contest" at the Curtis Culwell Center, which offered a $10,000 prize for the best artwork or cartoon depicting the Prophet.
For the past two years, Simpson and Soofi have been running posts and images on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram extolling the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and all its works, threatening American Christians with revenge and declaring that terrorist attacks were coming.
Shortly before the Dallas event opened, an explicit threat to mete out punishment to those insulting the Prophet Mohammad in Texas, like in Denmark and Paris, appeared on a Twitter account (since de-activated) belonging to AbuHussainAlBritani, known to security services as an ISIS platform.
Simpson had been known as an FBI target since 2010. Then, he made no secret of his plans to travel to Somalia, take advanced studies in Islam and die as a martyr. He was arrested , convicted only of making a false statement to the forces of the law and released on probation. After that, a double agent persuaded him to talk for hundreds of hours on tape, candidly admitting that he intended one day in the future to take part in a deadly terrorist operation.
Yet Simpson was not detained, or even placed under extra surveillance.
Data flowing from Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) is critical in the war on terror: social networks like Twitter and Facebook serve terrorists around the world widely for passing information, arranging rendezvous, filling in the gaps of operational directives and, above all, disseminating their messages.
The US National Security Agency, as well as European and other agencies, maintain blanket surveillance of the social networks, transferring their content in almost real time to giant computers at agency headquarters for filtering and analysis. It is hard to understand how the radical online messages and outspoken tweets by Soofi and Simpson, which left no room to doubt their intentions, escaped interface by those computers with their past records and views.
The pair was therefore free to drive from Arizona to Texas in late April, in a car registered in one of their names, and armed with machine guns.
They pulled up at the Curtis Culwelll center, where the Mohammed cartoon exhibit opened in the presence of Pamela Geller, president of the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), which has sponsored anti-Islamic advertising campaigns across the country, and Geert Wilders, a Dutch politician and anti-Islamic campaigner who is on an al Qaeda hit list. When they reached their destination, they were not stopped until they actually started shooting – and only then thanks to the fast reflexes of a police guard on the spot.
That Simpson and Soofi were permitted to get so far is best explained by a certain weakness in the human intelligence capabilities of US and Western intelligence, the shortage of undercover agents able to mingle in communities and populations with the potential for producing radical elements capable of committing terrorist murder and suicide in the name of their faith. These agents must be able to pass unnoticed in mosques, bazaars and cafes, and have an ear for local dialects, street talk and inflections, so as to catch onto dangers through innuendo.
Digital intelligence, however extensive, is no substitute for human intelligence. It takes an undercover human agent on the ground to pick up on terrorist threats in time to thwart attacks.